Few topics split EU member states as much as the discussion on whether nuclear has a place in the EU taxonomy for sustainable activities. A coalition of 11 states, led by France, is rooting for its inclusion, while most of the rest wants it out – particularly Germany and Austria. E&M’s Maria Taskinen explains why she is glad that the Greens in Finland, her home country, have adopted a technology-neutral approach to climate change and hence joined France in lobbying for the addition of nuclear to the taxonomy. At least for now.
Glasgow November 2021. This autumn, the world’s leaders once again sat around the same table to talk about actions to combat climate change as COP26 finally took place after one year of delay. Full of determination (as always), the goal of the conference was ambitious: to reach an earlier “phasing-out” of coal and other fossil fuel subsidies in order to secure global net-zero emissions by 2050 and limit global warming to 1,5°C. However, “phase-out” was eventually switched to “phase-down” and once again, the most impressive commitments were left to remain an environmentalist’s pipe dream.
“Phased-out” or “phased-down”, the agreement still makes history by being the first COP agreement where fossil fuels, and coal especially, are even mentioned. While little reported, it addresses some of the key methods which countries should employ to replace fossil fuels. One of them calls on the importance of low-emission energy systems in transitioning from fossil fuels to renewable energy resources, including the increasing deployment of clean power generation. That’s when the debate about nuclear, a carbon-free energy source with potentially catastrophic risk, comes in. What should its role be in the fight against climate change?
Needless to say, nuclear power is a controversial topic. It is considered to pose a variety of health risks caused by nuclear accidents and imperfect storing of radioactive nuclear waste. Just as for humans, exposure to radioactivity can have long-lasting impacts on nature. For most of us, the horrific memories of the Fukushima or Chernobyl nuclear catastrophes loom in the back of our heads when these issues are brought up. These events played a vital role in the rise of global anxiety and distrust in nuclear energy which gained momentum also in the political sphere. In Germany, the Fukushima disaster really worked as a final catalyst to mobilise massive anti-nuclear protests leading the government to decide on the complete phase-out of nuclear plants by 2022. However, nuclear power has its perks. As its largest benefit, nuclear power does not produce carbon emissions or pollute the atmosphere, thus offering a clean form of energy production. In Europe, France has been nuclear’s most vocal advocate. Just a few months ago, as part of the new “France 2030” investment plan, President Macron announced a €1bn investment in nuclear power aiming to be used to innovate small-scale reactors and improve the waste management systems.
“The need for a stable and clean form of energy production to complement renewables has grown too large, and the EU knows it.”
But a lot of the future of Macron’s investment plan now lies in the hands of the EU. The European Commission has been battling with whether to add nuclear power as a “sustainable” or “transitional” activity under the EU’s green finance taxonomy for months. The aim of the taxonomy has been to provide investors a handbook of instructions about what is considered “green”, in order to direct more investments into sustainable businesses. The extreme sensitivity of the topic has split European countries into pro- and anti-nuclear camps given that the decision to exclude nuclear power from the taxonomy would have an immediate impact on the future of the European energy industry. With France in front, twelve countries are rooting for the inclusion of nuclear energy in the taxonomy while five countries with Germany’s lead are against it.
Critics have argued that the use of nuclear power is incompatible with the “do no significant harm” principle of the EU Taxonomy Regulation, referring to the idea of binding countries together to protect the biodiversity of the climate. However, in March, a review by the EU’s scientific advisory Joint Research Centre (JRC) found no science-based evidence that nuclear energy would be more harmful for human health or the environment than any other electricity production technology already mentioned in the taxonomy. In June, the assessment received further backing from the Group of Experts, who almost unanimously voted in favor of the report. While the Commission’s final verdict is expected to be published at the end of December, right now it looks like the inclusion of nuclear power to the sustainable investment list as a transitional fuel seems to be going through. The need for a stable and clean form of energy production to complement renewables has grown too large, and the EU knows it.
Next to France, my home country, Finland, has been lobbying the EU to declare nuclear energy as sustainable. It is not surprising given that around one-third of Finnish electricity is produced with nuclear power. Also, in November, after years of delay, the new reactor Olkiluoto 3 was finally announced to be completed and production is expected to start after the turn of the year. Therefore, it goes without saying that Brussels’ contemplation about nuclear energy’s future is a topic that is of interests to the Parliament in Helsinki. But what is surprising, is how easily the Finnish Green Party has adopted a pro-nuclear stance. For a party that already dropped out of government coalitions over nuclear investments twice before, one would think that nuclear energy lobbying would be a tough piece to swallow. However, now the Greens have decided to support the decision and even the party’s vice-chairperson Atte Harjanne, has loudly advocated the inclusion of nuclear power into the EU’s taxonomy. The new “technology-neutral” approach is definitely a surprising addition to the party’s agenda.
Nevertheless, it is reasonable. The Finnish Green Party’s softened stance represents a new kind of pragmatism that has entered the discussion around nuclear energy. Yes, we can remain hesitant to the idea of saying yes to new costly and massive nuclear plant projects (just as the Finnish Greens still does) if the same money could instead be directed to the development of renewable ones. But 2050, and the net-zero emission goals that come with it, is getting closer and the world’s increasing need of electricity is only putting more pressure onto the global energy industry. It is by no means certain if in the current timeframe, renewable energy sources such as solar and wind power suffice to do the work. Therefore, the transition needs low-carbon sources and for that nuclear energy looks like a feasible option. After all, once running, a nuclear plant offers a stable and extensive basis for countries’ energy production without being affected by factors out of human control, such as the weather. So, wouldn’t the fight against climate change still benefit from this low-carbon fuel?
“Safety must be the number-one priority for any plant operator and reinforced through policies that make sure that the whole industry respects it.”
To be sure, nuclear power has its risks, and the point here is not to greenwash it. Uranium used in the production is not a renewable resource and the production chain does generate radioactive waste, which is potentially harmful to the environment. Safety must by all means be the number-one priority for any plant operator and reinforced through policies that make sure that the whole industry respects clear rules.
In Finland and Sweden safe operation has played a particularly important role and the research focusing on safe waste disposal has been on-going for decades. On top of that, both countries require nuclear power firms to engage continuously and transparently with the public to obtain a “social operating license”. Local municipalities are included into the decision-making process by being granted veto rights against final waste repositories. After the Fukushima disaster, the industry underwent huge leaps in technological and safety governance not only to regain the confidence of the investors but to also re-win the acceptance of the public. Today, the statistics show that political and corporate efforts did pay off. In Finland, public trust in the functioning of the plants has been regained and in 2019 almost half of the population supported nuclear energy as a tool to limit carbon emissions. This shows that the Nordic model can serve as a north star for any EU country planning to invest in nuclear.
“If executed with the highest levels of expertise, safety and political and social acceptance, nuclear offers a viable low-carbon solution to transit the world to its net-zero emission trajectory.”
So yes – it is important to see nuclear energy as a tool to phase-out carbon-emitting energy sources. Climate change is real, and the globe is warming while the risks regarding the use of nuclear power remain just risks. If executed with the highest levels of expertise, safety, and political and social acceptance, nuclear is a viable low-carbon solution to transit the world to its net-zero emission trajectory. Therefore, as long as coal, oil, or any other carbon-emitting fuel are comprising 80% of the world’s energy production, we should consider following the pragmatic path that the Finnish Green Party’s strategy exemplifies. Hence, my Christmas wish to the EU: please do not exclude nuclear energy from the climate action toolbox. At least not yet.